Tuesday 17 May 2011

Dead Ringer (1964)

Director: Paul Henreid
Stars: Bette Davis, Karl Malden and Peter Lawford

If there's anything better than a film starring Bette Davis, it surely has to be a film starring Bette Davis and Bette Davis. This one has her playing twins, as she had done in A Stolen Life in 1946, but this was 1964 and times had changed. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was only a couple of years earlier and this was advertised as 'for Baby Jane people'. To emphasise the tone of the piece, it begins at a funeral, that of Frank DeLorca, a key figure to both of the characters Bette Davis plays. He was a rich colonel from an important family. Edith Phillips was a WAC he met in wartime who fell in love with him. Margaret DeLorca is her sister, who stole him away from her on the pretext of being pregnant with his child. Edith hasn't forgotten, though it's been ten years since they've seen each other. Time has treated them very differently. Maggie is rich and flaunts her wealth to her sister, who runs a cocktail lounge called Edie's Bar but is a soft touch.

The technical work done to enable Bette Davis to play opposite herself is pretty solid, only a hint of texture now and again betraying the trickery. What Davis does with the roles is fascinating, as she overdoes both parts initially, deliberately so as both are twisted characters, hurling polite barbs at each other from behind fake faces. It's when Edie storms out that the subtleties begin. It's when she discovers from Maggie's chauffeur on the way home that the DeLorcas never had a child that the story follows suit, especially once her landlord gives her a month's notice as she's three months behind on the rent for the bar. So this soft touch gets serious. She gets her sister to her room above her bar, she shoots her dead and she takes on her life. They are twins after all. Swapping clothes and hairstyles is easy. The rest is just picking up the necessary details without anyone noticing. If anyone could make it work, it would be Bette Davis, right?

Well, it isn't quite that simple. While Edie has kept up with her sister's public life in the papers, there are secrets that have never been printed, down to an affair that the press wasn't privy to. There are people she hasn't met, background she doesn't know, habits she wasn't aware of. Her sister led a privileged life, in a mansion with many rooms and many servants, none of which she knows. Edie smokes but Maggie doesn't. There's even Duke, the family dog who hated Maggie but gets on with Edie fine. Naturally we expect to spend the rest of the film waiting for it all to fall horribly apart, though we have at least a modicum of sympathy for Edie. We don't approve of her actions, of course, but we do want to see her redeem herself by coming clean. What Bette Davis brings to this role though that lesser actresses couldn't have done is that the longer Edie plays Maggie, the more Maggie subsumes her and the more she loses that sympathy.
While we watch Bette Davis dominate throughout, as is hardly surprising for a film that stars her in not just one but two leading roles, there's a notable supporting cast to back her up and they are surprisingly prominent as the story runs on. Most obviously there's Karl Malden, as a down to earth cop called Sgt Jim Hobbson, one who saw Edie earn her first buck and wanted to marry her, even though she may not have fully realised it. He doesn't see the details as quickly as the other major name, Peter Lawford, who is Maggie's bit on the side, perhaps because he doesn't want to. The interest both these characters have in the sisters keeps the story dynamic and fascinating, not to mention full of cruel irony with at least one twist that I didn't see coming. Malden has the bigger part and he works it well. Lawford has less to do but he does it capably, surely bringing plenty of less savoury Rat Pack realism to bear on his character's sleaziness.

I was happy to see Estelle Winwood as Dona Anna, Frank's highly religious mother. She's superb but she has been in every part I've seen her play. I came in at the very end of her career, as the aged nurse to Elsa Lanchester in Neil Simon's Murder By Death, and every odd picture I find here and there adds to my appreciation of her talent. While Winwood is subtle here, Jean Hagen is an enthusiastic society friend of Maggie's called Dede Marshall who breezes into her mansion as if she owned the place and everyone in it and breezes back out again. This was Hagen's last role, after a short but memorable set of nineteen films in the fifteen years since Adam's Rib in 1949. By coincidence, Winwood only made nineteen films too but it took her three times as long, her screen career running from 1931 to 1976. Hagen was a versatile talent, who left behind pictures as varied as The Asphalt Jungle, Singin' in the Rain and The Shaggy Dog. She's a brief riot here.
One face I didn't know that stood out as worthy of note is that of Cyril Delevanti, who acquits himself well as Henry, the DeLorca's butler. It turns out that I've seen him a lot, in uncredited bit parts in old Universal horrors as well as much later pictures like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Soylent Green, but here is where I'm likely to picture him whenever I see him again. It's certainly a good cast but there's another actor to mention who serves a surprising role: Paul Henreid, who had served as a capable leading man to Bette Davis on more than one occasion but especially in one of her greatest pictures, 1942's Now, Voyager. Here he doesn't appear on screen because he's the film's director, something he took to after speaking out against McCarthyism, something which got him promptly blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Unable to act, he directed B movies and TV episodes. This was his most prominent film as a director.

It's a surprising piece in a number of ways. Based on a short story by Rian James, it was adapted into a script as early as 1944 but was shelved by Warner Brothers. It saw life first in Spanish as a 1946 Mexican film called La Otra, the story's original title, with Dolores del Rio playing the lead twins in the same year that Davis played twins in A Stolen Life. Whatever the reason Warners left it untouched for so long, Davis wanted the parts when Dead Ringer was put together a couple of decades later and she turned down roles in other films to get them, including 4 for Texas with two more prominent Rat Pack members, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Whatever its history, it feels like it was advertised, a dark sixties thriller made in the wake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I'm sure it would have played very differently in the mid forties, the era of film noir. Given the clever twists, I'm intrigued as to how La Otra treated the same material that far back.

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